By Jenny Ferns
Having spent the second half of June 2022 at the Leipzig Oper, (accompanied by the Gewandhaus Orchestra), I had been immersed in the first 7 Wagner operas of his oeuvre. It was possible for me to attend to the continuing sequence by attending Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Deutsche Oper Berlin when I attended the 8th in the series in Berlin. Amazingly, this array of choice was possible during the period while the Opera Houses of Germany were still enjoying their fully available offerings before their summer recess. Leipzig Oper presented the whole oeuvre of Wagner’s 13 opera compositions under the banner “Wagner 22”. In Berlin Die Meistersinger was a stand-alone Wagner offering this season.
Deutsche Oper Berlin is housed, very conveniently with access to its own U-Bahn station, (“Deutsche Oper”), in Bismarckstrasse 35 10627 Berlin-Charlottenburg. It’s Bornemann (1961) architecture, like that of the Leipzig Opera House (1960), are of Brutalist architecture design and construction, reconstructed on former Opera House sites. Therefore, from the external viewpoint, they are both functional rather than beautiful. Audience comfort in both theatres is assured, though the public facilities as well as the foyer arrangements, though spacious, are not particularly comfortable. (A strange and complicated arrangement, in both locations, applies to the pre-order process for interval drinks. It seems to be traditional but less efficient than it is worth.)
Having been warned, and therefore prepared, for a “different” slant on the Berlin 2022 Meistersinger context, the mental adjustment and preparation required, was necessary, and appreciated. Over the interim period since it was completed in 1867, in 2022 a contemporary setting is justified, but this production was an extreme jump from the intended original historic placement of events. Some may call it “innovation” in
the current production, which may be necessary. But the new context, together with some of the extreme behaviours and actions required, (mostly by the new role-playing of the main characters, as well as some chorus activity behind the on-going front-stage singing and movement), was distracting and superfluous.
From the first notes of the overture the earworm from the earlier experience of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, alerted me to the difference in acoustics and orchestral sound in the Deutsche Oper auditorium. Nevertheless, the movement of the dazzling red velvet curtain set the expectation high. Pressingly quickly, a new version of Wagner’s famous story emerged. (A Saturday evening performance, commencing 16.00 Uhr, filled to only 3⁄4 capacity was being filmed from the rear of the stalls.) The opening chorus included the placement of the choral voices (usually in an on-stage church setting) in the upstairs galleries on both sides of the auditorium.
The opera was first performed in Munich on 21 June 1868. It conveys in the plot, many well-entrenched customs to do with the art of singing in a Guild-managed community dominated by tradition. In the mean-time by the 21st century, for this production, the concept has been significantly revised. The Producers, Jossi Wieler and Anna Viebrock together with Sergio Morabito, have adjusted the 19th century “art of German singing” to be transposed to contemporary activities in a music school in Germany. (This context is based on a true recent “Me-Too” scandal at a Munich music school.) Their main intention is to show that the core of this opera is to do with the “vocation” of singers, including the training, pressures and discipline required for that profession.
The cast of singers of all ages, (students of the Institute), includes some very mature male voices and other choristers of diverse nationalities. They are all very casually dressed, continuously and athletically re-arranging the area of stackable furniture to suit the varying purposes of the scene. Here there are plenty of distracting opportunities to create humour. After-all, this opera is billed as Wagner’s only “comedy”.
Eva’s father, Dr. Viet Pogner (Albert Passendorfer) in this 2022 version, is the imminently retiring Founder/Director of the Private Conservatorium where this event unfolds. On his retirement the institution is to become a public establishment. He has decreed that his successor should, not only be the successful candidate in a singing competition to be held on the forthcoming St Johannes’ Day celebration, but also receive his daughter, Eva’s, hand in marriage. Thereby Dr. Pogner hopes to retain some degree of control over his beloved Music Institute which has good standing in the community.
After the Overture, on curtain-up, the opening scene, normally set in a church during the Sunday service has been transferred into a lobby of a Music Conservatorium’s campus corridor where students congregate and disburse during the Chorale. There is an immediate “surround-sound” gained by the chorus of off-stage choir members being placed in the upper loges of the minimally decorated and functional auditorium. On stage, the students are occupied with arranging and re-arranging furniture, as if in preparation for an orchestral presentation.
Though the whole musical presentation sticks closely to the original score and libretto (shown with supertitles in both German and English), the on-stage roles and activities deal much more with physical development and therapies, than with structure and delivery of songs at a competitive level. Hans Sachs, (Johan Reuter), is a masseuse or physical trainer as much as a music teacher. David, (Ya-Chung Huang) Hans Sach’s master student, here shown in a bright green track-suit as a very comical contribution, as well as an attendant in the logistics of the arrangement of musical furniture in the department (on stage), also as teacher of yoga and physical movement. Eva Pogner, (Heidi Stober), usually portrayed as a formal “correct” character, is here a very uninhibited, diminutive, active and vivacious music student. She is distracted from her studies by her interaction with Hans Sachs and the already confident relationship with the Nobleman, Walther von Stolzing, (Klaus Florian Vogt). Magdalena, (Annika Schlicht) usually Eva’s companion and girl-friend of David, is here a departmental administrator and supervisor.
David, as a senior tutor, as well as Hans Sachs’ assistant; regales the other students whilst also being the recipient and teacher of physical therapies and massage techniques, purportedly being applied to release the stresses of his performing duties. Meanwhile, Walther von Stolzing and Eva are occupied in unabashed romantic actions. Magdalena, prevails in assisting and directing the behaviour of the couple as well as the other students in their various activities. On the revelation that von Stolzing needs to learn quickly the techniques of singing and the poetry of song composition in order to qualify for the song competition, Magdalena orders David to explain the necessary details.
Hans Sachs, usually a shoe-maker (cobbler), is redeployed here as a physical trainer, specializing in foot care, balance and deportment matters to help with voice production. He himself, wears no shoes. In this current format the Wagner composition converts to lessons in singing structure but also management of power and manipulation in the music training environment. The senior Faculty (formerly Guild members) considers the suitability of the new contestant.
From time-to-time, a large digital clock placed on the rear wall of the lobby, activates itself, backwards. Its relevance and significance being lost on this viewer.
The plot thickens when Dr Pogner reveals that there is already a prospective competitor who is well-versed in the singing techniques and rules relating to the up-coming competition, a member of the Faculty, Sixtus Beckmesser, (Philipp Jekal). He is also a brilliant pianist. A curious and quirky change from Beckmesser’s usual instrument of choice, a lute. Beckmesser is a conservative member of staff who doesn’t always see eye to eye with Hans Sachs who wants the faculty to be more Democratic. However, he still encourages Beckmesser to try to find a suitable song for the competition despite Beckmesser and Sachs being of similar age and less suited for marriage to Eva. Sachs has no intention of entering the competition. He is already a Meister as well as a widower with no interest in remarriage. His strength is in teaching.
Meanwhile Walter von Stolzing and Eva Pogner have been continuing their very active courtship including all the usual student freedoms. Eva, (Heidi Stober) the American Soprano, is extremely confident of her position and keen to confirm Walther von Stolzing as her preferred candidate for the song competition. She has a delightfully bright clear well-controlled voice despite her very active physical requirements of the role and her slight, diminutive figure – a pleasant surprise for that role these days. A casting coup!
Singing Walther von Stolzing, Klaus Florian Vogt, was a co-operative consort enjoying the physical and musical partnership with Eva Pogner. Always looking a suitably pony-tailed, non-conservative, yet aristocratic, match for his socially well-placed and debonair companion.
After Hans Sachs’ efforts to sort out the various colleagues and participants’ personal issues and maintain his own self-control, he has his most significant monologue “Wahn! Wahn!” at the beginning of Act III. He tries to rationalize the various issues involved for the individuals and for the various levels of “management” of institutions, state and country, eventually deciding that there must be some kind of leadership to help manage these situations. This, and the concluding remarks, after Walther has been awarded, yet denies, the prize, are the highlights of the opera. Johan Reuter played the demands of the role with suitable aplomb despite the conflicting demands throughout the opera.
Some criticism can be raised about the possibly unwarranted distracting on-stage activities of the chorus of students (during the long monologue of Hans Sachs) which purports to be dancing but amounts to sexually suggestive gyrations at length. Audience distraction caused by this activity would certainly not form the intention of the libretto and score, let alone the stage-directions intended by Wagner. Such intended alterations are not always appropriate. As expected, there was a concerted booing by the audience at the conclusion of that Act.
From a production point-of-view it must be so difficult to create a complete variation of plot based on a very-well-known scenario but still to maintain synchronicity with the original score and libretto. Josi Weiler and his colleagues have been most innovative in the process and outcome. The challenge of the idea and its innovative execution make it worth pursuing. In future editions some adjustments may be appropriate.
A challenge arises for the Directors to devise a concept (without the original creator’s input) to create a satisfactory result or, that the paradox of creativity is that the quality of the original idea must be maintained.
From Wagner Quarterly 166, September 2022